Lucky Oxford. It will have two fast railway connections to London from Monday, December 12 (2016).
That is the day the new Marylebone to Oxford line will open. (Oxford is already served by trains from Paddington Station.) The link will be billed, correctly, as the first new connection between London and a major city in the UK in over 100 years – High-Speed 1 from the Channel Tunnel to London doesn’t count because it doesn’t link UK cities.
It’s not quite that exciting. Only about a kilometre of genuinely new track has been laid in the £130 million scheme, compared to around 100 miles of new railway when the Great Central Railway was forged between Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham to the terminus at Marylebone in 1899, but that little statistic shouldn’t detract from the significance of this piece of new infrastructure, which was generated by very forward thinking Chiltern Railways in 2008.
The programme meant upgrading track from Oxford station and out of the city, connecting the new Oxford Parkway station and along part of the forthcoming East-West line as far as Bicester Village, where the short piece of new track was laid to join up with the existing London to Birmingham line.
Despite the huge increase in passenger figures in the UK – up 129.8% from the figure at privatisation in 1994-95 to 1.69 billion in 2015-16 – there have been relatively few new railway projects to meet rising demand. The 30 mile long Borders railway in quiet rural Scotland is the most ambitious.
And yet with every successful new example – and Borders Railway is certainly that, with rosy passenger figure and the growing prospect of an extension as far as Carlisle – governments should become more willing to countenance new schemes.
The new link from Marylebone is already operating over much of its route – it opened as far as Bicester Village shopping outlet and Oxford Parkway last year, and has shown impressive passenger figures.
Now trains will run the extra few miles from Parkway station into the city centre, which is likely to attract more visitors from the corridor between Thame and Haddenham, down through High Wycombe, into North London and on to the terminus, which is closer to many Central London hotels than rival Paddington. And in reverse, the link will allow yet more customers to access Bicester Village station from Oxford and the south and west.
The big winner here, is Oxford tourism, already booming with a list of distinguished attractions in this historic university centre. The city was wise enough to restrict car traffic many years ago, with the first of four park-and-ride facilities around its edge in 1973. But even now arriving by train might seem the easier option.
Only this year (2016) we had to wait 35 minutes for a bus to arrive at the Thornhill park-and-ride to take us into town for an evening theatre date. It had been held up in the chronic congestion on the London road out of the city.
Theatregoers, for example, might now prefer to take the train all the way into Oxford, after parking at one of the stations on the line out of the city – Thame, for example (720 spaces, and more likely to be free late afternoon). Or even High Wycombe. (This is its first direct link to Oxford in 53 years.) And the last train back to London leaves at 11.15, well after shows finish. The New Theatre to the station is half a mile, a 9 minute walk.
For all the touted advantages of the privatised railway, there is very little genuine competition between companies. Now we have a real match to look forward to – Chiltern Railways versus the longer established Great Western Railways service from Paddington station to Oxford. Chiltern is promising free Wi-Fi, power points, “spacious carriages with plenty of tables” and the facility to book tickets on a PC or Mac or tablet, and on smart phones.
It is going to be fun.